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Country gospel singer/songwriter Fern Jones was born in El Dorado, AR, in 1923. According to Joel Selvin and Ken Shipley's comprehensive liner notes in the 2005 retrospective The Glory Road, she was the daughter of a wildcat oil driller and grew up in abject poverty, nevertheless receiving a Sears Roebuck guitar at the age of 12. Soon she was lying about her age in order to play local honky tonks, but put her musical aspirations on hold after marrying short-order cook Raymond Jones at just 16. When Ray became an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God Church, building a tent congregation in Americus, GA, Fern embraced the Pentecostal life with equal fervor, singing and playing guitar at revival meetings and composing original gospel songs.
The couple toured throughout the Southern tent revival circuit, briefly settling in cities from Atlanta to Murfreesburo, and along the way Jones made her first recordings. A friend passed the tape to Jimmie Davis, the Grand Ole Opry star and former Louisiana governor best known for the 1940 blockbuster hit "You Are My Sunshine," and he soon negotiated to buy the rights to Jones' "I Was There When It Happened," adding his name to the songwriting credit. Jones' recording would go on to catch the ear of a young Johnny Cash, who later cut his own rendition of "I Was There When It Happened" on his first Sun Records LP.
The success of "I Was There When It Happened" did not afford Jones the boost she anticipated, however, and when no major-label deals were forthcoming, she and Ray recorded several LPs for vanity presses across the South. Little to no documentation exists for these albums, however, although The Glory Road liners discuss one such effort titled The Joneses Sing, later reissued on the Christian Faith label and featuring early versions of some of Jones' most notable compositions. Finally, Mac Wiseman — the bluegrass great now installed as A&R director of Dot Records' country music division — convinced Jones to lease her catalog to the label, resulting in her lone Dot effort, Singing a Happy Song. Recorded with Nashville session giants Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano, Joe Zinkan on bass, and Buddy Harman on drums — all four of them fresh off a July 1958 session in support of Elvis Presley — the album boasted a rockabilly-inspired energy reminiscent of Elvis himself, additionally recalling singers from Patsy Cline to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Jones toured the U.S. in support of this remarkable record, but Dot had no idea where to begin promoting such a singular hybrid of gospel and rock & roll, and ultimately Singing a Happy Song proved a commercial failure. After a May 20, 1960, performance in Long Beach, CA, Jones simply retired from performing, ending her two-decade career without fanfare. She died in 1996.
1923, El Dorado, AR
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